(Image courtesy Pixabay)

(Image courtesy Pixabay)

An appeals court panel ruled that Philadelphia social-services workers responsible for thousands of children needing foster care can exclude Catholic Social Services because of its religious beliefs on marriage.

Lawyers for CSS plan to appeal the ruling by from Thomas Ambro, Anthony Scirica and Marjorie Rendell of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

CSS asked for a preliminary order that would allow its volunteers to continued caring for thousands of children.

The city has rejected the organization’s help because the Catholics refuse to change their religious beliefs about marriage. The city enacted a policy requiring that foster-care programs actively support and endorse same-sex marriage.

Ambro, who wrote the opinion, said the court’s scope was limited.

“Our question is not whether the city or CSS has behaved reasonably. Nor is our task to mediate a mutually agreeable compromise between the parties. It is to determine whether the city’s actions were lawful. Did it have the authority to insist, consistent with the First Amendment and Pennsylvania law, that CSS not discriminate against same-sex couples as a condition of working with it to provide foster care services? Or, inversely, has CSS demonstrated that the city transgressed fundamental guarantees of religious liberty?”

The judges rejected the order, concluding the city’s “non-discrimination policy is a neutral, generally applicable law, and the religious views of CSS do not entitle it to an exception from that policy.”

That’s even though the Supreme Court, when it created same-sex marriage, specifically protected the rights of religious believers who oppose it.

The non-profit Becket, which represents longtime foster care provider Sharonell Fulton, plan to continue because the case is at the heart of the fight between constitutionally protected religious rights and same-sex marriage.

Such cases have included the question of the freedom of churches to hire people of their choice and the right of a baker to refuse to create a cake for a same-sex couple.

Becket said Fulton “and other foster parents will continue fighting to provide stable, loving homes for Philadelphia foster children after a court ruled against them and the religious foster care agency they work with.”

“In Sharonell Fulton, et al. v. City of Philadelphia, a federal court of appeals sided with a new, discriminatory city policy that forbids the Catholic Social Services from doing what it has done for almost a century: uniting foster children with loving families.”

Becket said Catholic Social Services is “one of Philadelphia’s best agencies and has partnered with the city for over 50 years.”

“Yet in March 2018 the city suddenly threatened to shut down the agency because it disagreed with the agency’s longstanding religious beliefs about marriage – even though not one LGBTQ couple has ever approached Catholic seeking certification and the agency never prevented a child from finding a home. Represented by Becket, Sharonell Fulton, a single mother who has fostered more than 40 children in 26 years, joined other foster parents licensed through Catholic Social Services to file a lawsuit against the city.”

“As a single mom and woman of color, I’ve known a thing or two about discrimination over the years,” said Fulton. “But I have never known vindictive religious discrimination like this, and I feel the fresh sting of bias watching my faith publicly derided by Philadelphia’s politicians.”

The organization said that with more than 6,000 foster children needing placement, the city issued an urgent request for 300 new families to help right away.

But at the same time it refuses to allow CSS families to help.

“This ruling is devastating to the hundreds of foster children who have been waiting for a family and to the dozens of parents working with Catholic Social Services who have been waiting to foster a child,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket. “We”re disappointed that the court decided to let the city place politics above the needs of kids and the rights of parents, but we will continue this fight.”

The U.S. Supreme Court previously rejected a CSS request for an emergency order.

Three justices – Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas – dissented.

In its rejection of CSS, the city has ridiculed the Catholics, insisting it’s “not 100 years ago anymore,” “times are changing” and Catholic beliefs should, too.

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